It seemed impossible to curate an issue about political publications without evoking the 11 years of publishing The Black Panther. Jane Rhodes tells us about its story, its role in the Black struggle for liberation, and how it came to be the most widely read Black newspaper in the United States.
Before there was Twitter, before there was Instagram, before there was Facebook, before digital platforms were the main sources of communication for protest movements, there was print. Cheap, disposable, easily reproduced, and passed along by hand instead of electronic pathways. Basic technologies were required for production — the pen, typewriter, mimeograph machine, printing press. But nothing was required for reception except literacy. From the birth of the Black press in 1823 to the 21st century, print media have been an essential tool for the Black freedom struggle across the globe.
The Black Panther newspaper, founded in 1967, was one of the most influential among them. The cultural material of today’s protest movements, from the image of the clenched black fist to the slogan “All Power to the People,” were first circulated by The Black Panther and have sustained their potency as symbols of resistance and rage.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense erupted from the cacophony of crisis and protest in the late-1960s — the successes and failures of the Southern Civil Rights movement, persistent segregation and discrimination in the urban North, the escalation of the U.S. war in Vietnam, and growing international solidarities among the aggrieved. A small group of young radical Black activists led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale gathered in Oakland, California to create a hybrid movement.
They borrowed the title “Black Panther Party” and the image of the snarling black cat from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) voter registration campaign in Alabama. Their bold manifesto — later called the “Ten Point Platform” — took a page from the demands published by the Nation of Islam. They found inspiration from the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, global Black nationalism, and anti-colonial movements. Required reading included Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) and Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book (1964). Producing a periodical was part of the ethos of the day and the Panthers were destined to become part of radical print culture aiming to cultivate a counterpublic beyond the reach of mainstream media.
The catalyst for the first issue of the newspaper was the all too familiar case of Black death at the hands of the police. On April 1, 1967, 22 year old Denzil Dowell was shot and killed in Richmond, California by a local sheriff’s officer, and the Panthers seized on this issue to illustrate state-sanctioned violence in Black communities. Dowell’s family, frustrated by a lack of information from law enforcement and the local press, turned to the Panthers for assistance. They responded with a four-page newsletter to publicize the issue and mobilize community support. The Black Panther Black Community News Service appeared on April 25, 1967 with the headline “Why Was Denzil Dowell Killed?” Despite the amateurish nature of this first issue — hand-drawn, typed and copied on a mimeo machine — it delivered a powerful message: critical facts of Dowell’s death had not been answered, the police failed to be accountable, and Black people needed to organize for self defense. “Brothers and Sisters These Racist Murders are Happening Every Day; They Could Happen to Any One of Us,” the paper declared. Two pages were devoted to outlining the Panther’s philosophy and tactics — that Black Power was essential “to stop the white racist power structure from grinding the life out of the Black Race” and that Black citizens needed to conduct surveillance of police activities. An organizing meeting was announced with an open invitation; we now know that this simple publication attracted dozens of recruits anxious to join the Panthers’ ranks. A few thousand mimeographed sheets circulating around the Bay Area were a powerful catalyst for building a movement.
The Black Panther Black Community News Service was wildly successful as an organizing tool and communications medium. While the Black Panther Party was attracting mainstream press coverage that broadcast their movement around the world, they were consistently represented as lawless, anti-American thugs whose agenda was to destroy white people. This fueled a framing of the Panthers as a social and political threat, justifying state repression to halt the group’s spread. Their newspaper was the only medium under their control and was critical for providing an alternative perspective about the organization, and about the varying crises confronting Black America. The paper was also needed for community-building for a fledgling social movement — readers could learn the basic tenets of the Panthers, the programs they sponsored, and the rules and practices of the group. It was an introduction to the world the Panthers made and The Black Panther Black Community News Service helped establish a sense of group identity. Theirs was a bold, aggressive, often confrontational approach that demanded change, and this style was profoundly attractive to a new generation of activists around the world.
Within months, The Black Panther Black Community News Service became an essential part of the group’s arsenal — the Panthers recognized that the battlefield was not only in the streets, but in the domains of public opinion and popular culture. Several individuals contributed talents and skills that made the paper more visually and rhetorically powerful. Emory Douglas, a college art student in San Francisco, became Minister of Culture and oversaw production and design. Douglas’ provocative and colorful illustrations and cartoons became a hallmark of The Black Panther. His work celebrated Black warriors in full armament fighting the evil “pigs,” who were stand-ins for the police, state authority, and all those complicit with the subjugation of Black people. Douglas described these images as “revolutionary art” that served as a “tool for liberation.” Eldridge Cleaver, a former prison inmate and writer for the celebrated alternative magazine Ramparts, joined the Panthers as Minister of Information, and added his gift for incendiary language and critical analysis. When Kathleen Neal, a SNCC activist, married Eldridge Cleaver in 1967, she brought an array of public relations skills to the Panther infrastructure that earned her the title of Communications Secretary. She assisted with getting out the newspaper each week, while also handling media outreach and press relations, making Kathleen Cleaver the most visible and influential women in the Panther leadership during 1967-1968. When Panther leader Huey Newton was injured in a 1968 shoot-out that ended with the death of a police officer, his arrest, incarceration and trial became a full-time preoccupation for the Panthers. “Free Huey” was a rallying cry in newspaper and at rallies. All of the group’s media resources were put into play to argue for the exoneration of their leader, arguing that he was a victim — not perpetrator — of violence. At about this time, the name changed to Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, and then was later shortened to The Black Panther.
Publishing The Black Panther was integrated into all aspects of the group’s actions and aspirations — as a tool for outreach and for internal discussion. The paper developed a more sophisticated appearance by moving to offset printing, the use of photography and color, and an array of graphic images. This also enabled the Panthers to provide printing services to individuals and community groups, thus furthering their outreach. Putting out a weekly newspaper was an enormous enterprise that facilitated group cohesion.
At the Party’s headquarters in Oakland, newspaper production was a demanding responsibility. Former members recall working through the night to to collect material, write and edit articles, layout pages, type copy, size illustrations and proofread the entire text, etc. In the pre-digital age, each page of the paper had to be mocked up just as it would appear in its final version, a painstaking set of tasks that required accurate measurements and placements of type and illustrations. Once the pre-press process was completed, the “dummy” pages would be taken to a printer which would make images of the pages, transfer them to plates, and then begin the reproduction or printing process. Once the issue was printed, members had to collect and bundle them for distribution. As the Panthers grew into a national organization with dozens of chapters around the United States, there was a greater emphasis on regional news and a broad network of activists contributed articles, poetry, and artwork for publication. Some Panther chapters began publishing their own local versions of the newspaper while also distributing the official organ.
The Black Panther also became a crucial source of revenue. Panther chapters were required to sell a set number of issues each week, and the rank-and-file could be seen on streets across the U.S. and abroad hawking copies for 25 cents. By 1968 the Party claimed they sold 125,000 copies and by 1970 their circulation was close to 140,000, making The Black Panther one of the largest — and most influential — Black-owned publications in the country. It was common to see copies of The Black Panther in community venues, on public transportation, and in ordinary households — many read the paper regardless of whether they were active members of the Party. What attracted readers was its bold approach in calling out injustice and arguing for radical change. A typical front page headline announced “Capitalism Plus Racism Breeds Fascism” with a photo of a Black child next to an empty, filthy refrigerator and a white policeman standing over the prostrate, injured body of Huey Newton. The paper’s covers often celebrate the Party’s heroes, friends and martyrs, from 18-year-old Bobby Hutton who was felled by police bullets as he surrendered, to Angela Davis who was touted as “A Black Woman in the Liberation Struggle.”
The inside pages were a compendium of reports on outrages and violence against Black and other disenfranchised groups, commentary issues such as women’s rights, government corruption. Stories routinely announced efforts to suppress the Panther’s influence, such as when Panther George Murray was fired from teaching at nearby San Francisco State University. Given that the Panthers were involved in constant conflict and controversy — confrontations with police, debates with rival organizations, court trials and in the case of Eldridge Cleaver, escape into exile abroad — they often made the news that they reported.
The content of The Black Panther was intentionally terrifying to the uninitiated — in the newspaper’s symbolic universe the people’s army waged war against their enemies and emerged victorious. One long-standing feature was the “Boot Licker’s Gallery” in which public officials, Black celebrities considered Uncle Toms, and other reviled figures, would be pilloried in cartoons. Many in the 1960s counterculture used the term “Pig” to refer to authority figures, but the Black Panthers raised this epithet to the level of art. In
The Black Panther the “Pig” appeared as a grotesque figure representing capitalists, the state, the police and the military — any adversaries of the people’s revolution. In the early days of the Party, the paper also glorified the use of weapons to symbolize the idea of revolution. Illustrations of Black warriors invariably carried guns and other armament, as the newspaper constructed a fearsome opposition to the status quo. This was both rhetorical and symbolic, but also material as various Panther cadres openly confronted sites of power. When the FBI labeled the Black Panther Party “the greatest threat to national security,” the full fury of law enforcement was unleashed against them with disastrous results — the deaths or imprisonment of dozens of Panther members including the brilliant leader of the Chicago Chapter, Fred Hampton. Faced with this violent backlash, the romance with guns and confrontations with the state became less visible as the Panthers highlighted their “survival” programs including breakfast for children, community schools, food banks, and transporting visitors to prisons.
The editors of The Black Panther also injected the concerns of communities of color and the poor around the world; they strove to encourage aggrieved Black Americans to imagine themselves as part of a global community of struggle. There were dispatches from locales including Palestine, Biafra and Mexico, and expressions of solidarity with the Republic of Vietnam and China. Indeed, the Black Panther Party fashioned themselves as the “vanguard” of the worldwide revolt against oppression, and used their newspaper to highlight their deeds as an example to others. Radical print media throughout history have been in the forefront of social movements, but suffer the consequences for their oppositional politics. The Black Panther was under constant surveillance by the state and was a target for undermining the organization. In 1970, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote that The Black Panther was “the voice of the Black Panther Party and if it could be effectively hindered, it would result in helping to cripple the Black Panthers.” Papers were stolen or damaged during transport, distribution manager Sam Napier was murdered, and copies were scrutinized by law enforcement. A U.S. Senate Committee investigating the Panthers used the newspaper as one of its primary resources to indict the organization for seditious activities. Nevertheless, The Black Panther continued weekly publication through 1978, despite internal fractures in the organization, the incarceration of the group’s leadership, and the gradual decline of the Party’s efficacy and membership. The Black Panther has had many imitators since and there have been efforts to revive it in print and online form. We can credit the newspaper with communicating the symbols and rhetoric of Black Power to a global audience and having a profound influence on contemporary social movements. ■